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Old 10-14-2009, 08:10 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default $25 Million Andy Warhol Sports Art Heist

Seattle owner cancels claim for stolen art

The Warhol images were insured for $25 million, but collector Richard Weisman says he doesn't want to deal with the insurance investigation into the robbery at his Los Angeles home.


An insurer offered a reward for information on the theft, but withdrew it after the claim was dropped.


From all appearances, it's one of the country's largest art heists: an iconic set of Andy Warhol silk-screen images, depicting sports stars such as Muhammad Ali, snatched last month from the Los Angeles home of Seattle art collector Richard Weisman.

But Weisman, 69, now has added to the intrigue: He's canceled his insurance claim for the 10 pieces. They were insured for $25 million. Weisman said he realizes some people might view it as strange for him to walk away from so much money.

But, he says, he simply couldn't stand the thought of insurance investigators poring through his personal records and interrogating his family and friends before he stood any chance of collecting.

"They turn you into a suspect. I just finally told them, 'I'm not going to go through it for three to five years. Forget it,' " Weisman said. "That's the only reason, and it's a good enough reason."

Weisman said he feels lucky he's wealthy enough to withstand the loss.

Because he won't be collecting on his policy, Chartis insurance recently withdrew a $1 million reward for the artwork, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) confirmed last week. Chartis had offered the reward anonymously through the Police Department.

Tracking each development is LAPD Detective Don Hrycyk, who for the past 15 years has taken on the unusual task of investigating high-profile art thefts.

"It's a lot of money he gave up," Hrycyk said. "It's one of those puzzling aspects you have to take into account when you do your investigation."

Hrycyk declined to say whether there are any suspects in the theft. Few clues were left at the scene, he said.

There was no sign of a break-in, and the Warhol images were taken while other valuable works were left behind. The theft was first discovered by the Weisman family's longtime nanny Sept. 3. Weisman was in Seattle at the time.

"We don't have anything tangible," Hrycyk said. "Some people saw a ratty-looking maroon van, which may have been parked in the driveway."

In all, 11 Warhols were stolen the set of 10 sports stars, which also includes O.J. Simpson, Pele, Jack Nicklaus, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dorothy Hamill as well as an image of Weisman, who personally commissioned the works from Warhol in 1977.

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Weisman actually commissioned eight sets of the "Athlete Series" from Warhol: 80 pieces in all, for which he paid $800,000. Warhol, a friend of Weisman's, also gave the collector the personal portrait as a gift. Each set of the Athlete Series is unique, with the sports stars portrayed in different colors.

Since commissioning the series, Weisman and his family have donated two sets to universities. They gave another set to the athletes themselves, and a fourth set to various sports halls of fame, Weisman said. That left him with four sets, at least until last month.

The theft has led to some unexpected fallout back home. Shoreline Community College has been forced to cancel a planned display of another set of Weisman's Athlete Series. The college had scheduled the display for the end of this month and had taken out large advertisements in Art Access and Seattle Metropolitan magazines.

"We were in the process of working through the details of the show: the security measures, the insurance, the transport of the artworks here and back," said Jim Hills, a college spokesman. "The theft in L.A. happened while we were planning all that. At first, it didn't seem of too much concern."

But the insurance company, not wanting to lose another set of the paintings, then ramped up its demands, Hills said. The college was told it would need to upgrade its security system and station two armed guards at the display 24 hours a day.

"It was another $15,000 or $20,000 we weren't anticipating and couldn't cover," Hills said.

Weisman said he still wants to share the joy of Warhol's art and plans to give some of the Shoreline students a private tour of his home, in the exclusive Highlands neighborhood north of Seattle, so they can view a set of the works up close.

Weisman has a long family history of art collecting. His father, Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist Frederick Weisman, built a celebrated collection that included works by Cezanne and Pollock. His mother, Marcia Weisman, became a driving force behind establishing L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. Weisman himself wrote a book: "Picasso to Pop: The Richard Weisman Collection."

Weisman said he was working as an investment banker in New York when he got to know Warhol in the early 1970s. Weisman said his inspiration for the Athlete Series came from his unusual love for both sports and art.

"I thought it would be a great way to connect two worlds that aren't really connected," he said.

At first, he said, Warhol "didn't know the difference between a football and a golf ball." But the artist became engaged as he met the athletes. Weisman said Warhol got along particularly well with hockey player Rod Gilbert and his teammates.

"It was really funny to see Andy hang out with the New York Rangers players," Weisman said. "At first they didn't get what he was. We went to some macho places, and people would come up and make snide remarks."

But the Rangers defended Warhol and soon loved his company.

"We had quite an adventure," Weisman said. "It was fun times."

The series became a popular hit with people who normally wouldn't visit an art gallery, Weisman said. Sometimes, thousands would line up around the block to see them.

Weisman said he was shocked the silk-screen images were stolen and flew to Los Angeles as soon as he found out.

"Everything in the house was untouched, there wasn't even an ashtray overturned," he said. "You feel like your privacy has been invaded, it's a very uncomfortable feeling. You are looking at empty walls with bare hooks."

Weisman said his ex-wife and 16-year-old son have access to the home, as well as his longtime housekeeper and the nanny. He said he trusts all of them and dismisses any notion that one of them could be involved.

He said the house has an alarm system, which wasn't activated at the time of the theft. Unfortunately, that sometimes happens, he said, with family members coming and going.

The set of athletes in Los Angeles had been hand-picked by his son, Weisman said, with the understanding the works would be his one day.

Weisman said he half expects the phone to ring with somebody asking for a ransom. Another scenario, he said, is that the artwork disappeared into someone's private home in the Middle East or Russia.

Hrycyk, the art cop, said he's been fielding calls from as far away as the French Alps and Slovenia. The Slovenia tip came from a man calling on behalf of his grandmother who had a premonition the works are hidden in a nearby wooden structure where horses' hoofs are shod, Hrycyk said. He laughed, saying he doubted such a place exists in the surrounding neighborhoods of West L.A. and Beverly Hills.

When celebrated art is stolen, Hrycyk said, it often becomes a waiting game for the work to surface. It would be impossible for a thief to offload such high-profile work on the legitimate art market, he said.

And, he said, the notion that some reclusive billionaire would purchase the pieces illegally and keep them hidden is more the stuff of novels than reality.

"In my experience, the type of person who has the money and prestige to own fine art finds that it becomes an extension of their power and prestige not something that they want to hide away," Hrycyk said.

He said he recently solved another case involving five Warhols stolen in 1989. The thief in that case turned out to be the victim's son, who was 17 at the time and had sold the works for drugs and money, Hrycyk said. The thief has since become a prominent art-gallery owner.

Hrycyk said he's helped recover $77 million worth of art over the past 15 years.

"With cultural treasures, you have success if you at least find the property, so it doesn't disappear forever," Hrycyk said. "In that sense, we have a good success rate."

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report. Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

The Arts | Seattle owner cancels claim for stolen art | Seattle Times Newspaper
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